“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
With this article, I want to address the fact that there are many hard-working scientists, who are looking into how and using which mechanisms, bodies and humans can heal themselves. People I learned from about these issues on my healing journey are for instance Lissa Rankin with her book „Mind over medicine“, Kelly A. Turner with her book „radical remission“ and especially Jon Kabat Zinn and the work of the mindfulness based stress reduction clinic from the University of Massachusetts. Another book that was very important to me is “Biology of belief” by Bruce Lipton. These are just a few examples of people from the medical and scientific world that try to understand how healing works.
There are more and more physicians that apply scientific research on how and why practices of integrative or holistic medicine are working and how the medicine of the future could look like, apart from technical innovations. We learn more and more that behind healing traditions such as yoga, meditation, Reiki, traditional Chinese medicine, healing touch/body work or many other forms we can find comprehensible reactions and functions of our bodies.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (2013) says in his book „Gesund durch Meditation“ (German version of „Full catastrophe living“) that today’s modern western medicine and the western view of the world as a whole is based on René Descartes and the 17th century. Descartes differentiated between mind and body and shaped this idea of a separate mind and a separate body in a tremendous way. Up to that point and in many non-western societies this separation wasn’t as significant or totally unknown. Modern science-based medicine is focused up to this day to quantify bodily processes and therefore rejected healing methods such as Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, herbal medicine and the like for a long time. These concepts / traditions just didn’t fit into the world view and systems that academic medicine was founded upon.
Areas of research towards a holistic understanding of health
But also in modern medicine we can witness a paradigm shift. Humans are more and more studied as holistic beings, and also illness and health are looked at with this holistic lenses. In the last years Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about the following areas of research that give us new insights about how body and mind are interconnected and mutually influencing each other.
Neuroplasticity refers to the form ability of our brains. Until recently neuro-biologists thought that the brain doesn’t produce new cells after our third birthday and that the number of nerve cells decreases continually from that point on. This idea was disproved by latest science. Today the brain is seen as an organ that has an ability to learn and develop throughout our life.
Depending on our environment and its influences, it can develop in different ways. Many scientists investigate how the brain creates consciousness and how body and mind are connected. There are more and more studies conducted on meditation practitioners that show that regular practice of mindfulness meditation changes our brain activity and the neuronal connections. To put it simply, what we do, how we live our lives, is then also stores and “written” into the structure of our brain with varying amounts and concentration of nerve cells. I’ll write another article later, where I will go into detail a bit more. For lots of research material on mindfulness, you can look at the page of the “Center for Mindfulness – University of Massachusetts Medical School”.
In Analogy to looking at the brain in a static way, for a long time there was a genetic determinism prevailing in main stream science. Our genes, the place where our genetic make-up and inheritable material is stored, were seen as fateful conditions. If gene x is present, then the probability to get illness x is this and that and so on and so forth.
But more and more researchers found out that also the genome is plastic / shapeable. They found that the environment and different environmental factors have a huge influence on which regulatory proteins are activated, that then “read” or “activate” genes or not. Genes could then be seen as books in a library. Which book is taken out and which page is opened, that power lies with the environment (Rankin). A researcher who went very much into the details of epigenetics is Bruce Lipton with his book “biology of belief”. The science of epigenetics tries to find out more on how our experiences, our learned thoughts, psychological and behavioral patterns as well as our life style influence the way our genes are animated/expressed or not.
Telomeres are parts on the ends of our chromosomes. They can be thought of like a cover or cap, like the plastic caps at the end of shoe laces. Telomeres play a role when cells divide and the get shorter with every cell division. They have a direct effect on the alteration of cells and thus our life span. The researcher Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel price of medicine for her discovery of the telomeres. She had shown that stress makes the telomeres become shorter more quickly. Jon Kabat-Zinn means that we can assume in reverse that mindfulness practice & meditation could slow this process down, as it improves stress management in people (2013, p.221).
Besides these three areas Jon Kabat-Zinn (2013) and the team of the stress reduction clinic of the University of Massachusetts work a lot with and on general research about stress and the field of psychoneuroimmunology. This field of medical science investigates the connections and influences of brain, nerve system and immune system. It is a very specific discipline that tries to explain how psycho social factors affect us on our physical level, the immune system and how healing processes take place in the body (p.212).
One question in this area of research is dealing with the so called placebo effect. A book I stumbled upon during my cancer treatment was “mind over medicine” by the American doctor Lissa Rankin. The book deals about holistic medicine and what factors contribute to healing. Lissa Rankin (2014) dedicates a whole chapter of her book to the placebo effect and shows that the belief of healing alone, also leads to physiological reactions in the body (p. 34 on). The book is very interesting, well written and I can recommend it to everybody interested in healing or going through cancer.
Another aspect she writes about struck me particularly. She shows that the interaction and the relationship between doctors and patients is tremendously important in the placebo effect. The doctor presents research that concludes that the attention, the valuation of the patient and so called “rituals of healing” are very important factors that activate self-healing powers and contribute to the placebo effect. She refers especially to the work of Ted Kaptchuk, who is an expert on the placebo effect and also gave a Ted talk about his findings.
The Stress an relaxation response
Much of this new research shows how stress is related to health and immunity. From my understanding of complementary/holistic medicine, meditation / mindfulness and healing in general as a cancer patient, is was very important to learn about these scientists and their work. A learning that was like a revolution or ground breaking insight was to learn about a very basic mechanism in our body, the so called stress and relaxation response. For a long time it is known that educating people about their condition or diseases is a powerful tool to engage patients into cooperation with doctors, commitment to therapy and increasing them to take an active role in their health. In the area of mental illness this is called psycho-education. In this sense learning about the stress and relaxation response was the most important psycho-education for me. More important than learning about what cancer is.
For this reason, I want to try to explain this mechanism more in depth in the second part of this article. It helped me more to understand rationally, that all of the things that I had done, like meditation, mindfulness and self-compassion practice do have a real effect on my body. But not only do I understand it better, I also felt for the first time that there are scientists and doctors out there that value these practices also from a medical point of view. Something that I had never perceived in this way from any of my doctors! It inspires me to keep up with my way of life.
Of course stress is not the only factor in health or disease. With all diseases multiple factors and complex processes or circumstances in the body and our surroundings come into play. However, I consider this as something very basic, fundamental and helpful and therefore will go more into detail in the next article!
Rankin, Lissa Dr. med (2014): Mind over medicine. Warum Gedanken oft stärker sind als Medizin. Kösel-Verlag, München, 3. Auflage
(English version: Mind over medicine. Scientific proof that you can heal yourself)
Kabat-Zinn, Jon (2013): Gesund durch Meditation. Das große Buch der Selbstheiliung mit MBSR, Knaur Menssana, München
(English version: Full catastrophe living. How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation)